San Francisco is a great place to go whale watching. Just a few miles off the shore are cool waters that offer the perfect feeding ground for several varieties of whales including grays, blues, and humpbacks.
Different whales migrate through this area at different times of the year. Many stop here for a while on their way up north for even richer feeding areas.
On your whale watching journey, you also get the chance to see schools of dolphins, leatherback turtles, and sea lions. Almost a hundred bird species and more than 300 types of fish call this area home, too.
So, grab your camera and head out on the water for an unforgettable whale watching adventure!
The great thing about whale watching in San Francisco is you have the chance to admire the marine wildlife almost all year long. My favorite time to go is during the warmest time of the year, from September to October. During this time, the sun is shining and the water is calm.
Alternatively, January to February is a fantastic time to see a variety of whales, even though the weather is cool and rainy and the water can get rough.
|Gray, Sperm, Killer (Orcas)|
Dolphins: Bottlenose, Northern Right Whale, Pacific White-Sided, Risso's, Common
Porpoises: Dall's, Harbor
Other Animals: Sea Otters, California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals
The only time of year that isn't great for whale watching is between mid-November and mid-December. As you will see from the chart above, it's the tail end of the season for the humpback and blue whales, and just the start of the migrating season for the gray, killer, and sperm whales.
If you are visiting during this time, you can still go out and explore. The ride itself is worth it and you will most likely see other sea creatures. Another plus is that many tours offer a second trip out if you do not see whales during your ride.
Depending on what time of year you decide to go whale watching in San Francisco, you have different options for tours. All of them start from Pier 39 in the Fisherman's Wharf District.
From there, you will sail along SF's northern waterfront, under the Golden Gate Bridge, and out to the Pacific Ocean, looking to spot not only whales, but frolicking seals, sea lions, dolphins, and a variety of sea birds. Each tour includes a professional guide and live commentary on board.
During the summer months, 2.5-hour tours to see humpback and gray whales depart at several times throughout the day. On weekdays, you can choose to leave at 8am, 11am, 2pm, or 5pm. On weekends, tours are offered at 3pm and 6pm.
There isn't really a "best time of day" to see whales in action. Some people say morning, others say afternoon, but the whales are active all day long, so any of the tour times will be enjoyable.
During the winter months, the weekday tours to see humpback and gray whales are longer and depart promptly at 8am. These are all-day excursions to the Gulf of the Farallones in the Pacific Ocean, about 30 miles out from the Golden Gate.
This option is a fun, but very long, day that starts with a 7:30am check-in, so make sure to pack a hearty meal and dress in layers for the journey.
In addition, there is a slightly longer 6-hour weekend tour to the Farallon Islands that departs every Saturday and Sunday at 8am, year round.
1. Take Seasickness Pills: If you are like me and get seasick, then make sure you prepare for this adventure ahead of time. There is little room to lie down on the boat, so it can be miserable if you aren't feeling well. The boat can get especially rocky at the Farallon Islands. My new favorite seasickness medication is Bonine. It works well without the drowsy feeling. However, it isn't as widely distributed, so if you have problems finding it, then head to Amazon.com and pick it up before your trip.
2. Protect Yourself from the Sun: Even if it's cold and windy when you leave, the clouds can burn off quickly on the waters outside San Francisco. Make sure you are prepared with sunscreen, sunglasses, and/or a hat.
3. Bring Your Camera: It is safe to bring your camera with you on this journey. I recommend bringing something along that you can use to cover it up, since at times it gets choppy and the ocean water splashes onto the boat. You don't want to ruin your nice camera with salty ocean water.
4. Wear Comfortable Shoes: Whale watching in San Francisco is not the time for high fashion. Wear flat-soled, non-slip shoes for the journey. You will be on your feet most of the time looking for whales, so plan for comfort.
5. Pack Warm Clothing: It may be warm and sunny on the day you leave for your whale watching adventure, but make sure you bring along warm clothes. The minute the boat leaves the dock you will start to feel the cool ocean breeze on your skin. I always wear pants and bring along an extra jacket to stay warm.
6. Bring Snacks: There isn't really much food on the boat, so bring along your own snacks. I like to pack some simple crackers or peanuts in addition to water. For the all-day journeys, you might want to take along something a little heartier.
7. Use Binoculars: Be one of the first people on the boat to spot the whales with your binoculars. Again, I recommend bringing something to cover them up so you don't have to fight off the ocean water marks once you return to shore.
One question I'm often asked is if you can see whales from the shore in San Francisco.
It is very rare for people to see whales from the coast in San Francisco. Most of the local and migrating whales are at least 3 miles out from Ocean Beach, which is on the western side of San Francisco.
If you really want to see whales, your best bet is to take one of the tours mentioned above. The naturalists on the boat will have the best ideas on where to find the whales and you will almost always see one during your cruise.